Bill Mitchell – An International, Worldwide Far-Right Attack on the Universities

Universities and academics around the world are on the defensive

Bill Mitchell is a Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia.

Cross-posted from Bill’s website Modern Monetary Theory

The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations |

When the conservative fight back against the social democratic era following the Second World War began in earnest with the publication of the Powell Manifesto on August 23, 1971. The US Chamber of Commerce commissioned lawyer, Lewis Powell, to craft a strategy to restore the dominant position of corporate America, which had felt diminished by the gains made by workers and citizens from social democratic policies. The memo was published as the – Attack on American Free Enterprise System. The agenda spelt out by Powell in the memo was wide-ranging and was subsequently implemented with spectacular success. It formed the basis of the neoliberal thrust against the gains made by workers and citizens, in general during the full employment era, which was supplemented by the welfare state of varying coverage and generosity depending on which country we consider. The Powell memo aimed to ensure that corporate interests were dominant in public decision making. The blue print developed by Powell is continually recycled and developments during this pandemic are no different.

I analysed the Powell Manifesto in this blog post – The right-wing counter attack – 1971 (March 24, 2016).

I considered the recent application of the Powell agenda to higher education in Australia in this blog post – The Powell Memo Play in Australian higher education (June 23, 2020).

Further developments since I wrote that post indicate that the the conservative strategy is alive and well and actively seeking to purge the sort of free thinking that arises in some areas higher education – the sort of thinking they feel.

The Powell formula

Powell’s basic conjecture was that the American economic system was under an attack from socialism or some form of statism.

He talked about “the Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic”.

It was the paranoia that was wheeled out by Republicans during the recent US election.

Powell claimed these “extremists” had attracted a “chorus” of “disquieting voices”:

… from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.

He also implicated “much of the media” – which “accords unique publicity to these ‘attackers’”.

Relevant to today’s post, Powell noted that:

The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.

The plan he devised, not unsurprisingly, targetted the enemy ‘strongholds’ that his paranoia had managed to identify.

In terms of “what specifically should be done” to the public education system, Powell said that the:

… campus is the single most dynamic source. The social science faculties usually include members who are unsympathetic to the enterprise system. They may range from a Herbert Marcuse, Marxist faculty member at the University of California at San Diego, and convinced socialists, to the ambivalent liberal critic who finds more to condemn than to commend. Such faculty members need not be in a majority. They are often personally attractive and magnetic; they are stimulating teachers, and their controversy attracts student following; they are prolific writers and lecturers; they author many of the textbooks, and they exert enormous influence — far out of proportion to their numbers — on their colleagues and in the academic world.

He targetted “Social science faculties” who “tend to be liberally oriented, even when leftists are not present”.

He reiterated the claim that universities were “graduating scores’ of bright young men … who despise the American political and economic system” and infiltrate “centers of real power and influence” (like the media, government departments, academia, etc).

He thus recommended that the US Chamber of Commerce:

1. Establish “highly qualified scholars in the social sciences” who can pump out pro-system material.

2. Influence promotion systems to ensure these high-profile, pro-corporate scholars rise to the top.

3. Organise regular speaking events to disseminate pro-corporate narratives.

4. These scholars and others should scrutinise what appears in textbooks to ensure critical material disappears. This would include influencing publishers in their decision-making processes.

5. Should demand “equal time on the college speaking circuit” to allow the Chamber’s message to be heard.

6. Demand a “Balancing of Faculties”, which would downplay the importance of social sciences and humanities.

7. Ensure these changes apply to the “increasingly influential graduate schools of business” and influence the curriculum to ensure they provide “essential training for the executives of the future”.

In terms of secondary schools, Powell recommended “action programs” of a similar nature – influential teacher appointments, the curriculum, and textbooks.

Fast track to modern day Brazil

There was an interesting article in the Boston Review (November 9, 2020) – Bolsonaro’s War Against Reason – which shows the Powell agenda is alive and well in modern day Brazil.

We learn that:

The Brazilian president’s offensive against universities threatens democracy and recalls the dark years of the country’s dictatorship.

Apparently, the President has altered the management of one of Brazil’s premier universities, without consultation, and installed one of his supporters.

The person was rejected by the normal universities processes governing such an appointment.

The article tells us that this is part of a wave of Bolsonaro attacks on Brazil’s higher education sector:

In more than two-thirds of the twenty-five cases where this has occurred, Bolsonaro has flaunted his authority and put his thumb on the scale, reversing the results of internal elections to nominate politically conservative rectors.

The management changes have been supplemented by:

1. Funding cuts that have compromised the solvency of the educational institutions.

2. A public relations propaganda campaign designed to undermine the reputation of the institutions.

And, unsurprisingly, university staff are now subjected to violent attacks in public spaces.

In this article from Inside HigherEd (May 6, 2019) – In Brazil, a Hostility to Academe – we learn that the funding cuts have been targetted against the humanities.

In particular, sociology and philosophy programs were first targetted and it was proposed shifting funding to the STEM courses.

This is a universal pattern.

The next intake of humanities students in Australia will find their fees much higher than previously as a result of changes I analysed in the blog post cited at the outset of this post.

In Brazil, the Government then announced “there would be 30 percent cuts to three major federal universities” because according to the public statement justifying the cuts, they were holding “ridiculous” events, which were anti-government:

The university must have a surplus of money to be making such a mess and organizing ridiculous events … Members of the Landless Workers’ Movement inside the campuses, naked people inside the campuses.

They then extended the cuts to all federal universities in Brazil as a strategy to undermine the changes that were made during the Lula da Silva regime.

Bolsonaro has regularly claimed that the higher education system is infested with “leftist indoctrination.

Commentators fell into the trap set by the government who claimed that they could fund more 10 day-care places for children from low-income families for every 1 university student and so hard choices had to be made.

Regular readers will identify the flaws in this logic.

First, the Brazilian government funds very little “K-12 education” in Brazil.

Second, an apparent “expert on Brazilian education” claimed that “There is a real situation of budget constraints”, which the government is playing on to justify the cuts.

The Brazilian government issues its own currency.

The education minister, who was previously an economics professor has a record of criticising universities for harbouring cultural Marxists.

In this article (Portuguese) – Novo ministro da Educação, Weintraub defende expurgo do ‘marxismo cultural’ (April 8, 2019) – called for a “purge of ‘cultural Marxism’” in the university system.

He wanted to “win over youth” through making presentations “more rock’n’roll” and purge the “monopoly of left-win ideas in universities”.

He considers ‘communism’ is a virus.

In this article (Portuguese) – Ministro da Educação diz que filmar professores em aula é direito dos alunos (April 28, 2019) – (Minister of Education says that filming teachers in class is the right of students) – the Minister said students should post videos of lectures to social media and he would analyse them (with his son!) to “find out if any irregularities were committed by educators”.

Of course, when they spew out the term ‘cultural Marxism’ they know it means nothing more than a signal. They point to “race theory or feminism” but really are targetting criticism in general.

They know if they can isolate some disciplines, they create an environment of fear that spreads through the university sector.

In Australia, as successive federal governments deployed a similar, though slightly more sophisticated attack on the university system, I have observed a growing and now widespread reluctance by academics to speak out publicly on issues that can been interpreted as being critical of government.

I recall one meeting where a cross institutional funding application was being discussed to attract federal funds to study “social inclusion”, which at the time was a major agenda of a Labor government.

I asked why the team was just accepting the framing that the Government was pushing – ‘inclusion’ – rather than the reality of the policy agenda which was to heighten ‘exclusion’.

I was told that we could not possibly include that angle in the project design as it would bite the hand that feeds.

I withdrew from the project team at that point. As it turns out they were unsuccessful in gaining the funding sought.

The Brazilian strategy is thus tried and will most likely suppress criticism coming out of the higher education system.

The obvious problem is that such cuts and strategies are designed to reduce the quality of democratic functioning. I have always been bemused by the intent of the Powell Memo, to suppress dialogue and discussion, given it originated from the so-called ‘land of the free’ and the self-proclaimed ‘the world’s greatest democracy’.

One second’s thought shows that claim is spurious.

1. The major parties work hard to stop the poor from voting in the US.

2. The voting system has a massive gerrymander.

3. The lobbying channel billions into the process thus buying votes and subsequent policy positions.

4. Outright lies are allowed and promoted by candidates and their media machines.

5. And all the rest of it.

This – Open Letter Regarding President Bolsonaro’s Recent Pronouncements on Defunding Philosophy and Sociology (April 30, 2019) – argues that the attacks on the social sciences and humanities in Brazil will undermine the quality of its “social institutions” and a “functioning democracy” must allow academics to contribute to public debates.

Critical thinking is developed in the targetted disciplines, which is exactly the point.


The Boston Review article provides much interesting historical information and more detailed understanding of what the Brazilian government is doing to curb criticism and free thinking in its higher education sector.

As one commentator cited by the Inside HigherEd article:

This is an international, worldwide far-right attack on the universities that is if anything more mainstream in the United States than in Brazil.

And Australia.

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